This is the ninth installment of “Cat Trax,” a series of feature stories that will periodically appear on the UNH athletics web site.
By Patrick Villanova, UNH Athletic Media Relations
DURHAM, N.H. -- Ever since he could walk, Willie Ford has been on a pair of skies, carving his own trail on the slopes. Years of training led him to the University of New Hampshire, where he has quickly ascended into the elite tier of collegiate skiers. But despite all of the individual accolades and success he has enjoyed this season and throughout his career, Ford is not done.
After placing 11th in the slalom in last year’s NCAA Championships and missing All-America honors by the narrowest of margins, the standout junior is set to compete again next week and has high hopes for this year’s event.
“I want to come back with some hardware and get on the podium in one or two of the events,” Ford said. “I’m just thinking about carrying what I’ve done this year into the NCAAs.”
It comes as no surprise that the Plymouth, N.H. resident qualified yet again for the NCAA Championships. While he experienced success in his first two seasons at UNH, during which he finished as men’s alpine point champion of the team both years, Ford has been especially good this season.
In six carnivals, Ford recorded three first-place finishes, one second-place finish, two third-place finishes and one-fourth place finish to help the men’s alpine team capture first place in both the slalom and giant slalom in five of the six carnivals and garner All-East First Team recogntion.
Ford’s most impressive outing on the year came at the Dartmouth Carnival in February, when he astoundingly secured first place in both the slalom and giant slalom. That performance has undoubtedly helped him garner the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association’s No. 2 and No. 3 rankings in the giant slalom and slalom, respectively.
Even with all the success Ford has had this season, he realizes he is a piece of the larger puzzle that is his team.
“Through our team atmosphere we build on each other and get better,” Ford said. “We all motivate each other and that carries over to the races.”
Although he has established himself as one of the top racers on the squad, he rarely feels pressure to carry the load of the team and place first in every event.
“This year we have a lot of depth,” Ford explained. “That’s why (we’re) having such a great year. We have five guys capable of having a good run every time. I wouldn’t call it pressure, but there definitely is a feeling that I want to do as well as I can in the carnivals. Not only for myself but for the team.”
Ford grew up in Plymouth, but his skiing career was hatched on the slopes of Okemo Mountain in Vermont, where his mother was a coach and his aunt was director of racing. He started racing competitively at age nine, and attended Holderness School in New Hampshire for high school. When it came time to select a college, Ford chose to remain in-state for his collegiate career.
“UNH was always in my mind. I’ve always loved skiing New Hampshire, but my main goal was to ski for a Division I team – wherever it was possible – and fortunately it was here.”
In addition to piling up points for the Wildcats this season, Ford has also stepped up into more of a leadership role, according to teammate and co-captain Michael Cremeno.
“Willie is very motivated and a very hard worker,” Cremeno said. “He’s basically a third captain and tries to lead the team in all aspects.
“On the hill he is always pushing everyone,” Cremeno added. “When you get tired and cold, he makes sure everyone stays upbeat and positive about the training.”
In his first two seasons for the Wildcats, Ford said that balancing skiing and school, on top of a personal life, could be difficult at times. Perhaps his success this year can be attributed more than anything towards knowing what it takes to be a collegiate skier and prioritizing his life better during the season.
Unlike other athletic teams, Ford and his alpine teammates must practice off-campus, which can be difficult on one’s schedule. On Monday mornings and Tuesday afternoons, the team practices for the slalom at Pat’s Peak in Henniker. On Wednesdays, Ford and company leave campus at 5:45 a.m. and travel to Attitash in Bartlett for giant slalom practice.
“It’s hard and I definitely have gotten a lot better at it as time goes along,” he said. “You learn to set your priorities. In the winter it’s school and skiing and that’s your life. I think a lot of it has to do with me being a junior. I understand the circuit better this year.”
Ford also credits his own improvement this season to a more intense off-season training program, during which he worked hard on building endurance and agility.
“We trained really hard this fall,” he stated. “I’m stronger this year than I have been in years past, especially in the giant slalom.”
When it comes to preparation for a race, Ford is unique in that he does not memorize the entire course and every gate, as most racers tend to do. Instead, he opts for memorizing only certain portions of the course.
“Right before I go out of the gate I just try to relax,” Ford explained. “Either you’re prepared or not so it’s not worth worrying about it then.”
After his career at UNH is complete, Ford hopes to make the U.S. Ski Team and join his younger sister Julia, who currently skies on the U.S. Development Team.
“That’s a long-shot goal, but I’d like to think that I haven’t reached my prime yet,” Ford said.
If that does not pan out, Ford says he hopes to apply his degree in communications and minor in business in either the field of snow sports or renewable energy.
But for now, the speedster is focused on the opportunity he has at the NCAA Championships next week.
“I wanted to win some carnivals and I wanted to qualify for the NCAAs,” Ford said of his expectations for the 2009 season. “But I want a podium (there).”
Ford will compete in the giant slalom event on Wednesday, March 11, and then in the slalom on Friday, March 13. Bates College will be host of the NCAA Ski Championships from March 11-14.